October 28, 2010

All stays in the family

I guess I can’t very well expect you to scroll through several generations of bourgeois ancestral back story for a work of art, which I would tell in the uninvolved mock-genealogist style best mastered by Balzac spreading boredom for a hundred pages before he cuts to the meat of his story—still, since Alexej Meschtschanow has answered my request for an image with the most unassuming piece I’ve ever seen from him (in Balzacian terms: the poor country cousin), I think we can’t avoid throwing a quick glance at its forebears if we want to understand what this family of fettered furniture stands for, or better, carries on its upholstered backs.

The forebear nearest to my heart (for sentimental reasons) is this club chair from 2004, from the second year of sculptural works in this mode, which has become a sort of trademark for Alexej. Here is a piece of furniture with much higher pretensions than the footstool above, one that I suspect would care whom it’d be seen with. Not that this lies completely within its own choosing, because it must live with—depending on how you judge the situation—a support to put its broken bones upright, or a structure of shackles to keep it in place. Of course it is both at the same time, and the balance varies from model to model, since Alexej builds an individual tubular steel support for each piece, subtly reacting on the character traits of the furniture it carries, until it’s like an externalized ornament determined to hold its own. Here, the front legs of the club chair are held in the firm grip of a steely echo of leather cuffs, and its tiny wheels dangle in the air helplessly. The white tubular steel frame with its hospital bed wheels and the very practical handle in the back overpower the club chair and force an added efficiency on it that, as added efficiency will do, puts us in a wistful mood (even if we welcome progress in real life).

What is remarkable about this chair and all the others, the buffet and the children’s bed, is that they all have their thing so tightly together. As a viewer you needn’t bring much, you needn’t know what it’s called or what the secret intention is; the art draws on your powers of empathy and proportionally rewards them. Because of their communication skills, some of these pieces have almost iconic potential, well, as long as all stays in the family. A family that still grows, and I for one do not tire of their growing numbers, since each is an utter individual.

So the artist has sent me the poor country cousin, which I guess needs some extra love, because people tend to overlook it. The photo above helps, it is taken roughly from the perspective of a small child just able to stand on its own feet and to whom every object still has an inherent monumentality. Also, to whom the fettered footstool has a droll face, with beady eyes and a mustachioed lower edge. This perspective we wouldn’t share as normal exhibition goers; our gaze from lofty elevation down to that humble piece of furniture would rather try to see something useful in it, despite of its art status. And succeed. (I see my kids brushing their teeth when I look at the work. Seems safe enough if too narrow for the both of them at once. Only, the material is not suited for bathroom tiles, you’d always have to place it on a mat or some such nuisance.) Also, the forms seem quite happy in their easy encounter: the tubular steel lovingly repeats the funny keyhole that adorns the top of the stool. Yes, I think this country cousin of our sadly optimized club chair seems to be a rather happy-go-lucky fellow, his supporting structure uplifting in all senses of the word. The simple and open relationship between the two borders on the symbiotic, improving chances of survival . . .

All of this plays so directly into my habit of reading artworks for their psychology (which of course is the correct approach) instead of asking what the hell they mean, that I almost might overlook the obvious fact that these objects are hybrid beings sawn together by some mad Frankensteinian genius in his sleepless nights, impotent monsters that carry their self-defeating functional enhancements on their sleeves for us to ponder. Which is one thing that we need from art: monsters, I think I said that before.

After Alexej had created such varied cast of characters, they stood around in galleries waiting to be assigned roles, and since 2006 this is what he has given them. His exhibitions have become quasi-narratives acted out by sculptures, like in the recent Feierabend show at Klemm’s in Berlin, where the lone chair, a tubular-steel Breuer descendant held matter-of-factly in almost balletic grip by its support, pores over the floor plan of the exhibition, masterminding the whole scene.

Again, pretending it’s all between the artwork and the viewer.

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